Helping Young Children Increase Language and Literacy Skills

October 12, 2016

It was a sunny October morning on the preschool playground at Montecito Community School in central Phoenix. Four-year-olds are outside racing around on a grassy open space, climbing playground equipment and digging trenches in a  sandbox.

Then, suddenly, tears.

“¡Quiere la pelota!” the tearful student’s buddy called out to teachers in Spanish. “He wants the ball!”

A lost plastic football was retrieved and the children continued playing happily.

A short time later, the same students were quiet and focused. They sat in a classroom and listened as Montecito Lead Teacher Arizbeth Bustillos read a storybook and asked questions in English.

With the same ease as the boy on the playground spoke in Spanish, 20 students answered questions in English about the four seasons and colors of fall leaves. Then they went on to create alphabet letter shapes with Play-Doh.

Bustillos, who is bilingual, would do a similar lesson in Spanish that afternoon. Her classroom is filled with bilingual signs for things like colors, seasons and classroom furniture like mesas, or tables, and escritorios, or desks.

The dual-language preschool program began at the start of the Osborn Elementary School District’s 2016-17 school year. The free, full-day program for pre-kindergartners is part of a dual language initiative funded by Helios Education Foundation.  The $720,000 Helios grant includes a research component led by Arizona State University Associate Professor of Early Childhood Special Education Michael Kelley.

“Many students come from families where the grandparents speak mostly Spanish, the parents are bilingual and the kids speak mostly English,” said Vanessa Asarisi, Osborn’s community outreach and preschool coordinator.

“At this age they can soak up a second language like sponges. Parents say the kids are coming home and speaking Spanish to their grandparents. They don’t have a lot of vocabulary yet but they are comfortable switching from one language to another.”

Helping individual kids learn a second language is not the entire goal of the program.

“More than 43 percent of Arizona children under five are Hispanic, and many of these children come from homes where Spanish is the primary language,” said Dr. Karen Ortiz, Helios' Vice President of Early Grade Success Initiatives.

“Our goal is to implement two-way immersion early learning opportunities and learn how this helps with early literacy and language development for both Spanish and English speaking children.”  

About 250 students are expected to attend dual language preschool programs in Phoenix's Osborn and Creighton School Districts.  The students will receive and participate in classroom learning activities in English and Spanish - each day split between a morning in English and the afternoon in Spanish or vice versa.  The children are a blend of primary Spanish speakers and primary English speakers.  The preschool classrooms also include children with special needs.

Asarisi noted that most of the children who are participating come from families with low-incomes.

ASU’s Kelley said he will work with the children, parents, and teachers for at least two years and hopes to follow the students’ progress through the third grade.

“Most of the research on dual language learning has been done with older children,” Kelley said. “By taking a look at how dual language opportunities can support early literacy and language development, we hope to better understand how to ensure more children in Arizona are ready for success when they enter kindergarten and are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.”

Eventually teaching artists from children’s theater organization Childsplay will enter the picture and begin providing professional development to teachers and paraprofessionals on how to use movement and drama to help children build their dual language skills. Childsplay uses EYEPlay, an evidence-based professional development program for early childhood educators.  EYEPlay promotes language and literacy development through creative drama that demonstrates how movement coupled with cognition can have direct benefits to vocabulary and comprehension development for Dual Language Learners. 

Korbi Adams, Childsplay director of education and school programs, explained that EYEPlay techniques can help preschoolers not only answer questions after listening to stories but gain a deeper understanding by creating characters and acting out scenes. The EYEPlay lessons will be in both Spanish and English, she said.

“Effective teachers can have a huge impact on child learning,” Kelley said. “In the EYEPlay model, the teachers learn how to incorporate rich drama strategies into their teaching of literacy in two language.”

Kelley noted that there is a shortage of certified bilingual education teachers in Arizona and even those trained in dual language programs often don’t have a complete understanding of how children develop language abilities.

“Some of our teachers thought it was OK to translate for the children,” he said. “However, when you translate say from English to Spanish, the native Spanish speaking children will not attend to the English as they know the teacher will translate.

“Each language learned needs its own time.”

Kelley said he also hopes that over time the program will create public awareness of the value of knowing more than one language.

“We want to contribute to a broader policy discussion about how learning a second language is an asset rather than being viewed as a deficit.  Hopefully, this might have some impact at a policy level.”

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